Voices

Food banks have no place at the Big Society table

As the polls flip their door sign to ‘OPEN’, Margaret Cabourn-Smith says she’d happily see a nanny state step in if it meant the hundreds of food banks could flip their signs to ‘CLOSED’.

foodbank

During the last general election in 2010, there was a lot of talk about the “Big Society”. From what I remember, nobody really had a convincing answer for what it actually would consist of – particularly those that were pushing it. I remember feeling at the time it was a vaguely ominous Orwellian slogan.

Now we’ve had five years of a Tory-led government and – though the actual phrase seems to have vanished – the Big Society’s legacy has become clear: food banks.

While reports of economic growth, deficit reduction and employment statistics are hotly debated back and forth, nobody can deny that the number of food banks has massively increased (with emergency food parcel deliveries up 19% just in the last year) and they’re showing no signs of becoming less widespread.

I read one blog attempt to defend them as a success for capitalism – as if they were a delightful drop-in buffet, a party for the poor; as if these place are filled with jolly, Dickensian urchins, rubbing their hands and clicking their heels, delighting in the free margarine. David Cameron has also been accused of filing the ridiculous-fold increase in food banks under a shining example of his Big Society at work.

Let’s pause and think for a moment about the idea that a successful society = food banks. A rich country with the people at the top getting richer and richer and the people at the bottom unable to feed themselves. Every time I hear about the existence of food banks I feel shocked and embarrassed. In Britain! In 2015!

How do you prioritise disaster over disease? Or disability over donkeys? It’s only diseased, disabled donkeys caught up in disasters I’m confident about.

I’m scared we’re getting used to it as a concept; convincing ourselves that it’s in some way normal; that people not only deserve them but enjoy using them. The idea that not being able to feed yourself and your family could be anything other than terrifying and depressing. The idea that visiting a food bank could feel anything less than humiliating; however kind and generous the staff and contributors.

People bleat on about a nanny state as if it’s a shocking infringement of our liberties. Personally, I don’t know what’s wrong with having one. In fact I think I’d prefer a full on parental state – one that would take a chunk of my money away, like my mum used to take my train ticket, because I’d only lose it.

Yes I do donate to charity but it’s so easy to feel defeated. How do you choose between charities? How do you prioritise disaster over disease? Or disability over donkeys? It’s only diseased, disabled donkeys caught up in disasters I’m confident about.

It’s not like I give such significant amounts that I ever feel it’s made a real difference. It’s obviously a drop in the ocean. Which is where nanny comes in. Because surely it’s nanny’s job to see where the gaps are and make a real difference.

I can buy a Big Issue from the woman outside Chimichanga; she’s out there, appealing to me directly, but I have no idea what’s going on inside the flats between there and my flat, and that worries me.

I’m glad to say I don’t know what it’s like to be poor, disabled or old. So far. But I know that the people who are those things don’t deserve to be punished for it.

I also know that me randomly knocking on doors handing out coins and bags of dried pasta isn’t going to do much good. But I would like to help. Because it strikes me as really, really obvious that having money doesn’t make someone a better person than someone without. And while there are too many cases to judge individually, why don’t we club together and say AT LEAST nobody should be poor enough to have to use a sodding food bank.

I’m scared we’re getting used to it as a concept; convincing ourselves that it’s in some way normal; that people not only deserve them but enjoy using them. The idea that not being able to feed yourself and your family could be anything other than terrifying and depressing.

It feels like we’re run by a government full of people who have never learnt to empathise, who believe there are other people who would honestly rather rely on random purchases by kind strangers than work to provide their families with meals. I find that hard to believe, on a human level.

If it’s a case of people not managing their money then nanny should help them manage their money – and this goes for billionaires too, but I know some may disagree with me there.

I guess what I’m saying is let’s not focus on the minority of benefit scroungers but on the good that paying tax can do and we could all feel like philanthropists from the comfort of our own bank accounts.

Maybe everything will look different On Friday, May 8, whatever the outcome of the election. In the meantime, give what you can.

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Written by Margaret Cabourn-Smith

Margaret is a comedy writer performer popping up on your TV and radio who over thinks and over talks.